When he was an undergraduate at Cambridge University in the early 1950s, the poet Ted Hughes had a life-reclaiming dream. For two years he had been reading English Literature, or wearing what he would later call the straitjacket of the English Tripos as they had been reformed by F. R. Leavis.1
Weekly essays were required of English majors, and writing them, Hughes found, reduced almost to nil his writing of poetry. Since the age of fifteen, by which time he had memorized stretches of Shakespeare, Blake, Yeats and Lawrence, Hughes had known that he would devote his life to verse. He was utterly committed to it as a singular mode of perception. But at Cambridge, as he says in a letter to the critic Keith Sagar:
It became impossible for me to write a sentence, except in lucky moments. (It varied with the author in question—I remember writing fluently about Blake). The difficulties became chronic towards the end of my second year. One night I sat up late writing & rewriting 3 or 4 lines I had managed to compose. . . . I left the page on my table & went to bed. Then I dreamed I was still sitting at my essay, in my usual agonising frame of mind, trying to get one word to follow another. The door opened & a creature came in, with a fox’s head, & a long skinny fox’s body—but erect, & with human hands. He had escaped from a fire—the smell of burning hair was strong, & his skin was charred & in places cracking, bleeding freshly through the splits. He came across, & set his hand on the page & said “Stop this. You are destroying us.”2
Hughes stopped reading EngLit in favour of Anthropology, and by the age of twenty-five had published The Hawk in the Rain, as accomplished a debut, and as elemental a collection of verse, as any in English letters. In 1984 he became Poet Laureate of Great Britain, a position he held and ennobled until his death in 1998. His massive Collected Poems was published in 2003, and Letters of Ted Hughes, a selection edited by Christopher Reid, was released in 2007. Some of those letters will surely rank with the letters of Keats as important poetic documents. They offer an aesthetic education, and are, as Seamus Heaney said, “rammed with life in every line”.3
They were with me, those letters, as I entered for the last time in the spring of 2008 a spiritless classroom and gave to forty sophomores a final exam in Canadian literature. Even on nights when I was lecturing to the same class I often had a volume of Hughes or Heaney with me in my briefcase. The books were talismanic, a private bit of voodoo designed to guard my foxes, to bolster me against the torpor—my students’ and my own—as I led them through another barren of anthologized CanLit. There were delights as well: “The Progress of Love,” by Alice Munro, “Varieties of Exile,” by Mavis Gallant, and, beyond the anthology, “Single Gents Only,” by John Metcalf—he visited the class—and selections from his memoir, An Aesthetic Underground.
When I mention Metcalf I imagine eyeballs lifting from this page and rolling in their sockets: the old Brit-curmudgeon is still making rounds? Say what you will about his howlings and growlings: Metcalf’s efforts as a writer and editor have been admirably devoted to the cultivation in Canada of talent and excellence. Students of literature ought to be in their company always. Surveys of CanLit ensure that they are not. Surveys of CanLit, and the anthologies which serve them, begin to get interesting around about the 1950 mark (ecce Irving Layton). At that point you emerge from a fusty museum featuring mummies and fossils and fragments and shards. This museum, built with public funds, is administered by bureaucrats and academics. The museum’s only visitors are herded undergrads. Dutifully they scribble in their anthologies’ margins—E. Pauline Johnson might be on the midterm—but look as they do so at the declensions of their eyelids and at the leveraging of facial muscles against gaping feline yawns.
How is talent served by this? Or a living relationship with literature?
As I sat there on exam night, watching my students identify passages of poems and novels and plays and stories they are not likely to read again, it seemed to me that the institutional study of literature has probably entrained a holocaust of foxes. In spiritless classrooms the carcasses heap. You cannot identify or critically discuss a poem by E.J. Pratt? Perhaps the poem didn’t lodge in your heart—as it didn’t lodge in mine. No matter. I shall penalize you—and rethink belatedly and apologetically the goals of my profession.
Writing to Derwent May in April of 1992, Ted Hughes said this of EngLit and academics:
Trouble with the dominant Gauleiters in that world is they don’t know a thing outside their handful of disciplinary texts and nothing has ever happened to them. Those who know more and have learned otherwise keep their mouths shut and creep about, like estate workers among the gentry. The whole outfit stinks of pusillanimity and intellectual disgrace. They exactly correspond to those brave souls who ran Stalin’s Writer’s Union, and no doubt would have rushed to the same securitate jobs if ever that illusion had got here. They know this too and smile weakly at each other. . . .
When you hear the English Faculty and these Guardians of the Humanities praised remember this: for the last thirty years, each year I’ve seen the work [in a national poetry contest] of selected geniuses among 10 to 17 ten year olds from the whole UK—in fact I’ve helped select it. More natural talent than you could believe could exist in one country. Every year I watch the march past of these little stars, all bursting with hope—hurrying excitedly off to read English according to their natural bent and their utter ignorance of what is waiting for them in those abattoirs. . . . In 30 years not a single one has survived to reappear the other side of University as something unusual. . . . The whole lot are annihilated. . . . I know how it happens because I know what I went through scrambling through the barbed wire and the camp searchlights. Regularly I receive letters from students in their second or third year—in absolute despair, sending me their poems, begging for some direction. . . . Brian Cox, at Manchester, a few years ago, said he couldn’t bear to go on doing it. Every year they come rushing over no-man’s-land towards us (these are his words) faces shining with youth—and we just mow them down.4
I would like to say that the occasion of Hughes’s letter—professorial reviews of his book on Shakespeare—is leading him to overstate the case. But I am a survivor of the dismal Culture Wars. There are hopeful signs now that the worst of their pogroms and scorchings are coming to an end, but there is still sufficient reason for students and teachers to reclaim literature from its academic bindings.
Even those professors who abjure sloganeering and inculpation in favour of close reading or some variant thereof still tend, as I once tended, to use a novel or poem or story or play as a springboard into lazy metaphysics or Soc without the stats or Psych without the science. It sounds like education—it can even sound like wisdom—and it fills up the fifty to seventy-five minutes a lot faster than teaching tone-deaf students to hear the heart of a poem or a story. Take a random sampling of Canadian students from a senior seminar in Romantic or Modern poetry: they may be able to parrot what they’ve been told about the male gaze in “La Belle Dame Sans Merci”, or about Pragmatism in the poems of Wallace Stevens, but few if any could explain the difference between an iamb and a trochee, never mind scan a phrase such as “rammed with life in every line.” Asked to read a poem aloud, many would pause at the end of an enjambed line, and pronounce each word like a disconnected unit. In their mouths the poem is a bolus—chewed over for its “symbols.”
Alarm over this is not the stuff of a talcumed marms with their thwacking pointers and wrinkly knee-highs. I am not saying that teachers should loom over students as they sweat their way through memorized Virgil. I am saying, however, that few students can hold a poem—or the best prose—in their hearts. They cannot do so because they are deaf to its cadences and rhythms and euphonies. And in poetry that is not visual or cartoonish—so called language poetry, or latter day echoes of nonsense and Dada—rhythm and cadence and euphony are all. Style is not ornamentation. It is the carrier of perception. A poem’s sexual politics—or its nationality—will not lodge it in our hearts. The eros of its style—its aesthetic power—will.
W.H. Auden, who could never stand accused of easy mysticism, once said that the poet must preserve above all else “the sacredness of language.”5 Had he ever been required to teach poetry (he was asked to repeatedly but always declined) he would have focused exclusively, he said, on “prosody, rhetoric, philology and learning poems by heart.”6 Clive James hinges “the future of the humanities as a common possession” on the same lovely skill: the knowing of poems not by rote, but by heart.7 And here is part of another letter by Hughes that I read on examination night. It was addressed to Kenneth Baker, who in 1988, the year that the letter was written, was Great Britain’s Secretary of State for Education:
In English, students are at sea—awash in the rubbish incoherence of the jabber in the sound waves—unless they have some internal sort of anchor of standards. Classroom grammar kits & teacher’s prayers can’t conjure the guardian angel/duenna of English, for kids who have no other access to it but T.V., their pals, & their parents who had only T.V. & their pals & some mysterious gulf where the natural eloquence of the illiterate age was lost. What kids need, say I, is a headfull of songs that are not songs but blocks of achieved and exemplary language. When they know by heart fifteen pages of Robert Frost, a page of Swift’s Modest Proposal, Animula, etc etc, they have the guardian angel installed behind the tongue. They have reefs, for the life of language to build and breed around.
In addition to his stretches of Yeats and Blake and Lawrence and Shakespeare, Hughes had by fifteen years of age the first book of the Aeneid by heart. In Latin. It gave him, he said, the key to Latin grammar. What French he knew he got mainly from memorizing Baudelaire and Ronsard, and he taught himself passable Spanish in six weeks by memorizing the poetry of Lorca and then adapting its syntax.8
When I was fifteen I had never heard of the Aeneid and what I had by heart was most of David Bowie. I also had Shelley’s “Ozymandias” because I loved it and because an admired teacher had recited it beautifully before my Grade 11 English class. That teacher—Tom Sherry—began every class with a poem. Without his efforts and infectious delight I would have had no poetry at all in high-school. None. Or none but Shakespeare, whose plays describe the limit of poetry. From the four that we were required to read in high-school I did have “To be or not to be” and “Hath not a Jew” thanks to a wonderment-murdering bully (Grades 9 and 12) who liked to fire chalk at the heads of wayward students. As for Canadian poetry, I had no idea that any existed beyond Earle Birney’s “David”, and I entered university having read three Canadian novels: The Stone Angel, Who Has Seen the Wind? and The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz.
My undergraduate years did nothing to increase this meagre Canadian storing. Poetry in general was something I avoided—the curriculum allowed me to—until appetite and inclination led me to begin on my own the long and delightful apprenticeship of expanding language-and-perception. That apprenticeship could have begun in grade school. Or certainly by high-school—when I fiddled instead with trignometrical formulae and with BASIC, a dead computer language.
The twenty-two years since my high-school graduation have seen little to no improvement in aesthetic education. At the beginning of every course I give in CanLit I ask my students playfully if they can name five Canadian poems. No? Five Canadian poets? No? Five Canadian novels then. Hands raise: The Stone Angel, Who Has Seen the Wind? and The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz. Yes. Two more? The Catcher in the Rye? Fraid not. The English Patient sometimes comes up, and, more and more, another post-CanLit international property, Yann Martel’s Life of Pi.
Looking up on exam night from Hughes’s letter to Baker and thinking about the slivers of CanLit with which I and most of my students entered university, I tried to imagine a major Canadian poet actually writing a letter to our current PM and suggesting that every Canadian high-school student get by heart ten or twenty Canadian poems. Let’s imagine the letter making it (maybe it was written by Atwood or Ondaatje) through the echelons and the buffers to Mr. Harper’s desk. Would he even read it? Have it summarized for him? Imagine in either case the nullity, the androidal gaze, with which the letter’s suggestion would likely be received.
Nevertheless—there have I’m sure been stranger reforms in government-sponsored culture-building and public education—let’s imagine that ole Stevie assents and gets all the provinces (Quebec excepted) on nationalist board. How many months—how many years—of hearings and subcommittees? There would be debates, certainly: pedagogies, psychometrics, and above all politics. Schoolboards from Victoria to St. John’s would have to agree on region-specific variables in the chosen catalogue of poems. Care would be taken to sanctify our nominal multi-culturalism and our unforgotten Indigenous Peoples.
Amidst the bureaucratic wrangling I wonder if anyone would ask whether or not the poems being chosen were actually any good. Thorny issue that. Especially in CanLit. Here for instance is Robert Lecker in his introduction to the anthology Open Country, one of two new CanLit-bloatings released in 2008 alone: “[A]ny editor of a national anthology who attempts to collect ‘the best’ or what is ‘representative’ or ‘original’ is self-deceived. Such terms, being relative, are largely irrelevant. . . . Every national literary anthology is nothing more or less than the anxious attempt to create a selective narrative of nation, against all odds.” One has to wonder how Professor Lecker would feel about compiling “the worst” or the most “unoriginal” of our literature. Surely these terms are not “relative.”
But Lecker of course is right in a way: Canadian anthologies are not collocations of the nation’s best. They are yokings of our disparate and mostly minor literature to the un-gore-able ox of nation-building.
England may be unimaginable without Shakespeare, but contemporary Canada is not born of Susanna Moodie or Duncan Campbell Scott. The erasure of CanLit surveys—and the resulting closure of the market for major anthologies—would effect little to no change in Canada for the same reason that our hypothetical scheme involving the getting of poems by heart would fail: there are not ten Canadian poems, there are not five Canadian novels, there are not three Canadian plays that inhabit the Canadian heart. Twenty thousand classrooms will not improve this.
A national literature cannot be administered and is no longer germane to the fiction that we call Canada. A national literature, or an aggregate of works that emerge from the very marrow of a language and culture, depends for its vitality upon sociological and mythological homogeneity. The Celtic Renaissance which the younger Yeats wanted could not have taken root in a polyglot and ethnically diverse Ireland. Whatever else Canada may be, it is certainly polyglot and multi-form, an agglutination (“mosaic” implies pattern and harmony) of ethnic constituencies few of which maintain organic connections with the others. Why should the poetry of Bliss Carmen (or Dionne Brand or Michael Crummey for that matter) lodge in the heart of a Serbo-Canadian in Vancouver or a German-speaking Mennonite in southern Manitoba? Should it find a sounding in “common Canadian values?” What are they exactly? Those sanctified by the Charter of Rights and Freedoms? (Who among us can recite a line of that?)
The best literature in any case is concerned less with values than it is with aesthetic magnitude. The first-rate work that Canada has enjoyed increasingly since the late nineteen-sixties may have ridden a crest of nationalism but has little to do with conscious footings in a Canadian tradition. In his new collection of essays, Join the Revolution, Comrade, Charles Foran writes of Noah Richler’s hopeless (if informative and entertaining) attempt to find in radio interviews with major Canadian writers a defining national myth. Says Wayne Johnston to the non-plussed Richler: “I have basically no interest at all in the question of where my books fit into a way of interpreting Canada. . . It is extremely difficult and probably pointless to find a unifying idea or concept or even tradition.” Rohinton Mistry says much the same, as Foran points out, when Richler’s question about Canada’s influence on his fiction is answered after ten long seconds of telling dead air.9
This is not to say that homegrown influence hasn’t been exerted and felt by Canadian writers. Aritha van Herk, for instance, pays homage to the work of Robert Kroetsch, and suggests correctly, it seems to me, that Kroetsch’s aesthetic homesteadings have influenced and will continue to influence a generation of writers across the prairies if not across the country. Michael Winter and Lisa Moore have acknowledged the (routinely unanthologized) work of Norman Levine. John Metcalf’s efforts as a short story writer and editor have inflected the work of younger writers from Stephen Heighton to Sharon English. The experiments of bpNichol and of the TISH circle have influenced significant numbers of contemporary poets. Traces of Margaret Atwood can be seen in Diane Schoemperlen, and Alice Munro has been and will no doubt continue to be an incalculable influence on writers here and around the world.
I know I’m overlooking other examples of influence at work in Canada but I’ve cited enough for the straightforward point: I don’t know of any living writers who acknowledge nineteenth or early twentieth century Canadian writing as an influence on their work. Margaret Atwood was, we could say, sufficiently haunted by Susanna Moodie, and found in her a kind of spiritual precursorship—of her own early work, and of an English-Canadian disposition—but her literary influences properly speaking are international, as they must be with every Canadian writer.
Transplantation, importation and adaptation to local circumstance define Canadian writing. Consider the work of Robert Kroetsch. Professor Linda Hutcheon once referred to him as “Mr. Canadian Postmodern.”10 He would never have garnered the label had he not lived and worked during the late sixties at SUNY Buffalo. The postmodernist poetics that he absorbed there lent to him a means by which to articulate—in works such as Seed Catalogue and A Likely Story—the growth of a poet on the Canadian prairies.
Canadian landscapes—material and psychological—are not so unique as to reject the importation of foreign influences. A Canadian writer’s field of influence is language itself: English-language literature worldwide, and worldwide literature in translation or in those languages with which the writer is conversant. Nor can we ignore the languages provided by the other arts and by the mass-media. Into these fields the contemporary writer steals in the manner of a fox. He hunts. He scavenges when he has to. And from time to time he raids other people’s pens. In other words, he builds himself and his talent by compiling an anthology—the one to which he will eventually contribute—on his own terms.
We are our own anthologies. In every writer’s and every common reader’s heart a collocation of writers and works which have found a welcome place there. Literature written in Canada should be taught in the way that it is commonly read: alongside other literatures. Instead we ghettoize the subject and oblige our students to study the second-rate. When was the last time you saw anyone except a teacher or student reading a work of Canadian literature published prior to 1950? Duncan Campbell Scott and Sir Charles G.D. Roberts, Frederick Philip Grove and even E.J. Pratt: through bush such as this most students rough and snooze.
It could be said that what the students are resisting is simply the age of the literature, the unfamiliarity of its idiom. They need, it’s often said, to be lured away from their Facebook and their i-Tunes and their manifold versions of me-Porn into the disciplined pleasures of historical awareness and literary language. The notion is more or less true when it comes to the common run of undergrad. Many of them would rough and snooze through almost anything in class except for the next text-message. But there is no need to consider the common run of undergrad. Complaints about self-cretinizing students are Common Room argot and I can enjoy them—but they are as old as Aristotle and ultimately useless.
The disinterest, on the other hand, of promising or exceptional students can be hard to face but indicative as to course content—I mean to the life of that which is being taught. You can light up a lecture-hall or at least a few pairs of eyes with Milton and with the Romantics, but try lighting up a room with Towards the Last Spike. It is ostensibly our national epic—the Canadian Aeneid, as it were:
As grim an enemy as rock was time.
The little men from five-to-six feet high,
From three-to-four score years in lease of breath,
Were flung in double-front against them both
In years a billion strong; so long was it
Since brachiopods in mollusc habitats
Were clamping shells on weed in ocean mud.
Now only yesterday had Fleming’s men,
Searching for toeholds on the sides of cliffs,
Five thousand feet above sea-level, set
A tripod’s leg upon a trilobite.11
Right. I will say this about Pratt’s monster: it took my measure as a teacher. I mean that it made me admit how much of the fifty minute hour I was prepared to merely fill. To me the one-thousand, six-hundred and twenty-nine demi-Tennysonian lines of Toward the Last Spike are an aesthetic boondoggle, as though Pratt wanted his readers to feel something of the tedium with which the CPR was built. But twice in the last five years I prodded this behemoth from its slumber and whipped it into class because it allows for professorial prattle about big themes. Epic-parody. Landscape-and-nation. And so the lecture crawls glacially on.
Never again. Never again will I encumber myself and my students with Pratt’s bombast and his self-conscious mythopoeia. The latter qualifies him in Northrop Frye’s eyes as a major Canadian writer. Because I don’t want to spend any more time in cavils over his merits—that dead horse is best left to specialists—I will say this and be done with it: Pratt has occasionally impressive technical command, he is not without wit and vision, and he is certainly mythopoeic, but in the end his verse lacks that almost-ineffable, almost-unknowable quality—talent—that would place his poetry in the shadow of Tennyson.
The competent students feel that lack. They feel it too in the Confederation Poets and in almost every anthology-staple up to A.M. Klein. To him, or to Layton, or even more so to Don McKay, Michael Ondaatje, or the prose-poetry of Alice Munro or Alistair MacLeod, the response is widely positive or at the least interested, and I am convinced that the contemporaneity of the material is not the only reason. CanLit anthologies are stuffed with contemporary writers as barely-read and as classroom-silencing as their ostensible forebears. No doubt the likes of bill bisset, Di Brandt, Marlene NourbeSe Philip or Steve McCaffery have a place in the hearts of coterie-huddlings. Their place in a CanLit anthology seems to me secured by the easy translation of their work into professorial homilies on race and class and gender. Thus the enshrinement of stuff such as this:
yaji yaji yaji yu kaneee anjaneeee yakoooo yangee eee
eeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee ooooooooooooooooon yaaaaaa
aaaaaaaaaaaneeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee uskooooo eeeaanji
yaji yaji yaji yaji yananji [. . . .]
ever since T
this power E
an is S
th’ is ‘T
book is O
“this” “is” “R”
(closes): (Y): [. . . .12
Instead of this:
Their names clanging in the air like school bells, that’s what most of the Island children heard when they were called into supper. They heard their names ringing and they raced each other like dogs down the street, home to hot kitchens, steaming bowls of mashed potatoes, and platters of burnt-black meat. When Michael Gabriel’s mother called her in, a dark deck of ancestors standing beside her on the porch, the name travelled like a charm through the mute evening air. Michael Gabriel, playing alone by the dock or in the woods, picked up the lilting thread and followed it, a long poem winding through the dusk.
“To make the ear
of the khinzîr
(that grotty pig!)
as the Pleiades. . .”
Jaham pondered this and said:
Rather, to make the ears
of the Pleiades
pig-like, that is, porous, gristle-
webbed, conical, tendril-
attuned to the earth13
Of course, even the best and most original work becomes in our universities fuel for homilies. And the homilies do win converts. Our graduate schools, seminaries of the future professoriate, are full of them. But fundamentalisms do not adhere long in any but cowed dependent hearts, and talent is resilient. On desks across the country: abandoned essay pages, awaiting the print of foxes.
- See Letters of Ted Hughes. Selected and Edited by Christopher Reid. (London, Faber and Faber, 2007.) 603. [↩]
- Letters, 422. [↩]
- Times Online, November 28, 2007: http://entertainment.timesonline.co.uk/tol/arts_and_entertainment/the_tls/article2960466.ece [↩]
- Letters, 603-04. Christopher Reid notes that “Brian Cox is C.B. Cox, formerly John Edward Taylor Professor of English at Manchester University. His book The Great Betrayal: Memoirs of a Life in Education was published in 1992.” Cox was also a poet. [↩]
- Interview. Paris Review. Available online at: www.theparisreview.com/media/3970_AUDEN.pdf. 11. [↩]
- Interview, 7. [↩]
- See his Cultural Amnesia: Necessary Memories from History and the Arts. (New York: Norton, 2007.)141. [↩]
- See the Introduction to Hughes’s anthology By Heart: 101 Poems to Remember. (London: Faber and Faber, 1997.) The book can slide in a pocket—and enrich a lifetime. [↩]
- See “Everyone Knows This is Everywhere: Noah Richler’s Literary Atlas of Canada” in Join the Revolution, Comrade. (Emeryville, Ontario: Biblioasis, 2008.) 165-173. [↩]
- See her The Canadian Postmodern (Toronto: Oxford UP, 1988). [↩]
- This excerpt taken from Donna Bennet and Russell Brown, eds. A New Anthology of Canadian Literature in English. (Toronto: Oxford UP, 2002.) 309. [↩]
- Citations of, respectively, “yaji yani yaji” by bill bisset, and “Gnotes” by Steve McCaffery, in Robert Lecker, ed. Open Country: Canadian Literature in English. (Toronto: Thomson-Nelson, 2008.) 732 and 834. [↩]
- The first quotation is from Terry Griggs’s short story, “India” in John Metcalf and Leon Rooke, eds. The New Press Anthology: Best Canadian Short Fiction #1 (Toronto: General Publishing, 1984) and the second is Eric Ormsby’s poem “Jaham’s Poetic Manifesto” in his Time’s Covenant: Selected Poems (Emoryville, Ontario: Biblioasis, 2007.) Neither Griggs nor Ormsby has ever appeared, as far as I know, in a major anthology of Canadian literature. (Ditto, incidentally, for Richard Outram, David Soloway, and Richard Harrison, poets who inhabit my own anthology.) [↩]